Building an Ark for Texas: The Evolution of a Natural History Museum

Building an Ark for Texas: The Evolution of a Natural History Museum

Building an Ark for Texas: The Evolution of a Natural History Museum

Building an Ark for Texas: The Evolution of a Natural History Museum

Synopsis

Recounted through the eyes of a major participant, this book tells the story of the Dallas Museum of Natural History from its beginning in 1922 as a collection of specimens celebrating the plants and animals of Texas to its metamorphosis in 2012 as the gleaming Perot Museum of Nature and Science. The life of this museum was indelibly influenced by a colorful staff of scientists, administrators, and teachers, including a German taxidermist, a South American explorer, and a Milwaukee artist, each with a compelling personal investment in this museum and its mission.

From the days when meticulously and skillfully prepared dioramas were the hallmark of natural history museums to the era of blockbuster exhibits and interactive education, Walt Davis traces the changing expectations of and demands on museums, both public and private, through an engaging, personal look back at the creation and development of one exceptional institution, whose building and original exhibits are now protected as historical landmarks at Fair Park in Dallas.

Excerpt

In the spring of 1959 a high school English teacher in Irving, Texas, made an assignment that changed my life and ultimately led to this book. She asked each of her students to write a research paper about a profession they would like to pursue upon graduation. She required at least six footnoted references plus one interview. I thought it might be fun to work in a museum and called the Dallas Museum of Natural History to ask if I could talk to someone there for my paper. Museum director F. W. Miller said yes.

A few days later I sat, tablet in hand, listening to a wizard-like, painfully thin, gray-haired man in white shirt, bow tie, and pencil-thin moustache describe what it would be like to work in his museum. I scored 94 on the paper turned in a few weeks later, and the teacher scribbled, “well written” across the top—good news—and more to come. Miller called toward the end of May and offered me the position of summertime student assistant. I worked that summer and every summer thereafter until graduation from the University of Texas when I went full time and spent the next quarter century in my dream job. During that time I witnessed firsthand the dramatic evolution of an institution. the story of that transformation is the heart of this book.

Strictly speaking though, this is not a history book but the personal biography of an institution. I approach my subject in much the same way Joe B. Frantz did when he wrote The Forty-Acre Follies: An Opinionated History of the University of Texas. in it he confesses, “Any critic who alleges that this is not a balanced account will have my agreement. This narrative tells how I see the university, buttressed by fact…. This is the story of a living, evolving institution through my eyes. It is selective rather than definitive. the field is still open for a complete history.”

I am painfully aware that writing this way inevitably means important characters are left out, critical events are glossed over, and significant points of view are left unexpressed. After interviewing a number of colleagues about events we experienced together, I also realize there are as . . .

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